In a country ridden with caste-based prejudices, a new breed of Dalits is turning well-established stereotypes over their head. Now, with the Confederation of Indian Industries promising that at least 15 per cent of all services and goods acquired by member companies will come from Scheduled Caste and Tribe entrepreneurs, their numbers are set to rise.
When Devanad Londhe, the son of a Dalit watchman, finally raised enough money to start a glove-manufacturing company called Payod Industries, he faced a peculiar problem. He travelled to neighbouring villages to hire staff that would man his factory in Hingangaon, 39 kilometres from Sangli in Maharashtra. Despite the desperate need for a steady income, no one was willing to come on board. A rumour was making the rounds -- "This Dalit (Londhe) is manufacturing condoms".
A mammoth poster of UP Chief Minister Mayawati at the recently
inaugurated Rashtriya Dalit Prerna Sthal, a 33-acre park dedicated to
Dalit icons, in Noida. Mayawati has been demanding reservation of SC
and ST candidates in the private sector. In UP, she has introduced quotas
for Dalits in allotment of government contracts up to Rs 25 lakh and 10
per cent quota in jobs in private sector units established with the help
of the state government. Pic/AFP photo
Eventually, Londhe managed to convince a few staffers, even resorting to carry sample gloves as proof of what they were expected to produce. "Setting up a company and running a business is always a struggle for a first generation entrepreneur. Especially so if you are a Dalit," says Londhe.
Today, four years later, the 39 year-old employs 150 labourers in his factory that produces 20,000 pairs of gloves a month, all exported to Japanese firms. Londhe claims there is a demand for one lakh such pairs of gloves a month. To meet the deficit, the businessman is setting up smaller manufacturing units in villages nearby, each manned by 20 workers. So far, four centres are operational. Another 16 are expected to come up soon. If all goes according to plan, within a year, he will expand into the manufacturing of industrial helmets and boots.
What's particularly exciting, though is the possibility of catering to Indian companies for the first time.
On May 9, the Confederation of Indian Industries (CII) announced what it called affirmative action. The body said it would ensure that at least 15 per cent of all services and goods required by member companies would be offered to Scheduled Caste (SC) and Scheduled Tribe (ST) entrepreneurs. The body has also promised to train 50,000 youth from SC and ST categories, so that in a year's time, they can offer their services across a host of industries.
Milind Kamble, Chairman of the Dalit India Chamber of Commerce and Industries (DICCI), a body of Dalit entrepreneurs that seeks to help members, and has been chiefly responsible for CII's latest concession, says, "Many industry heads still think Dalits cannot produce quality products. That's the reason why entrepreneurs from our community lack confidence." It's only a handful who manage to bag direct contracts from top Indian firms. Most tend to be hired as third party producers.
Kamble, the son of a primary school teacher from Latur, who in 1995 borrowed enough money to bag a contract worth Rs 25,000 to build a wall for a school in Pune, now runs Fortune Construction. The company has an annual turnover of Rs 80 crore. "We are not asking anyone to compromise on quality. We are asking them to look at us, and see what we are capable of," he says over a telephone chat from his Pune office.
Despite the odds, the number of Dalit entrepreneurs is steadily rising, and CII's new promise will only hasten the process. Till 2010, DICCI had 250 members. In a year, the number has risen to 1,000, of whom 30 are crorepatis. The body is set to open chapters across Gujarat, Punjab and Uttar Pradesh. Kamble, however, is particularly bemused by the turn of events. The DICCI was once an inconsequential body.
Back in 2005, when it had just been established, a junior clerk received his memorandum seeking partnership with India Inc. when Sishupal Singh, a key DICCI member, marched to the FICCI office in New Delhi. In contrast, top honchos from the CII and FICCI attended the Dalit Capitalist party organised earlier this year.
Among the names of 200 Dalit companies that Kamble has forwarded to the CII for possible projects, one is Londhe's. Londhe finds it strange that it took this long for Indian companies to consider his products. "I export products to the Japanese who are known to be sticklers for quality. What then was stopping Indian firms from considering me?" he asks.
That answer will never be spelt out to him, just like how he never figured why his loan request for starting a business was declined. "The first time I remember facing caste-based discrimination, was when I was 13. I went for a wedding with my upper caste friends. When attendants arrived to serve us dinner, they held me by my hand, dragging me away from my friends. How could I make the mistake of eating with people from 'cleaner' castes?"
After graduating in civil engineering from Kolhapur University, Londhe was refused an internship job in a sugar manufacturing company where his father toiled laboriously as a watchman for 10 years. After finding his footing as an engineer in disaster management-related work, a job which he undertook for eight years while travelling to parts of Asia and Africa, he was finally able to buy land valued at Rs 55 lakh in Hingangaon. No bank was willing to lend him the Rs 5 lakh he required to start production at the factory, though he had property worth Rs 55 lakh to offer as guarantee.
"I had to sell our jewellery to finally set it up," says the man who now lives in a 3,500 square feet home. The factory he owns is spread across 15,000 square feet, and his farmland spans 10 acres. It's a far cry from the time his parents worked as daily wage labourers in neighbouring fields, and came back home to a 10x10 foot home of mud and straw.
But will this reservation help give rise to the entrepreneurial spirit in the Dalit community or lead to meritous non-Dalit entrepreneurs being denied business? According to Professor Surinder S Jodhka from the Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, merit is a fictitious excuse offered by the rich to ensure they stay rich, and the marginalised remain without privileges.
"Yes, in the beginning, the quality of goods produced may not be as great, given that this is the first generation of businessmen from the community. But it has been proven all across the world, like in the case of Blacks in the US, that strong affirmative action will lead to a more productive economy. And why not? There will be a larger talent pool than the one currently in practice," says Jodhka, who submitted a report titled, Dalits in Business, last year.
During his research, Jodhka found two problems that affected businessmen from the Dalit community -- a lack of network, given that they were first-time businessmen, and the absence of resources, whether concerning funds or land. "There is also still a serious bias against Dalits, and it's explicit in smaller towns. For instance, during my study I found that in some places, people kept away from shopping at stores owned by Dalits.
While other business enterprises were known by the service they provided or goods they sold, the shops owned by Dalits were known by the caste names of their owners. They'd be called 'Chamaron ki dukan' or 'Chuhdon ki factory' (Chamar's shop or factory of the Chuhras)."
Adhik Rao Sadamate, the first engineer in his family, who runs Sadamate Industries in Sangli, builds a host of industrial products. Like Londhe, he too struggled to find workers when he set up his factory in 1989. Today, he offers a salary at par with the best-paying (between Rs 7,000 and Rs 25,000 a month), and yet only 20 per cent of his 107 employees are non-Dalits. "What can we do? Despite our best efforts, caste biases remain," he says.
Recognising the difficulties faced by Dalit entrepreneurs, members from their community have come forward to find innovative solutions. Sadamate has established an institute in his village to help Dalits acquire training in how to work efficiently as industry staff. In Mumbai, Santosh Pagare, the Ghatkopar-based founder of Jalashay, a firm that sells a number of FMCG products to small shops across Maharashtra, offers three classes a week to aspiring entrepreneurs and businessmen from the community. Pagare and other achievers from the community drop by to host the sessions. "Some of them require basic assistance, like how to approach companies for contracts or fill loan forms. Some can do with just a pep talk to dream big."
Pagare also runs a printing press in Ghatkopar, enjoying an annual turnover of Rs 1.5 crore (for Jalashay) and Rs 72 lakh (for his printing press). One of the more well-to-do entrepreneurs from the community in Mumbai is Sanjay Kshirsagar. Kshirsagar's father who worked as a clerk in the Controller of Defence Accounts (Navy) may have taken 15 years to get promoted to Senior Account Officer, but his son has done well within a short span.
He runs Sound Concept, a manufacturing unit of hi-end stereo systems, and APA Infraventure Pvt. Ltd., a firm involved in as many as seven Slum Rehabilitation Schemes (SRS) development projects worth crores. Next, he's set to expand into the packaged mineral water business.
At his Malad office, Kshirsagar can watch the goings-on at his various offices, through a network of CCTV cameras that beam live images to his computer. In his office, he also maintains files of a number of projects he is proud of. One of them is titled 'Kumar Mangalam Birla'. In this file, a number of Kshirsagar's photographs with the industrialist and his product designs are stacked.
He describes how he once helped Birla overcome a conundrum that no one was able to solve. A 56" plasma TV set in the living room of the industrialist's Malabar Hill house was obstructing his view of the sea. Kshirsagar hoisted the TV to the ceiling, and using a motorised high-rope and remote control, the TV could be brought down whenever required. In the bargain, Kshirsagar also made Birla buy his speaker set up.
"Dalits entrepreneurs may have no background in business and commerce, but they work doubly hard because they have to prove to others and themselves that they are better, if not as good. And we never forget where we come from," he says, running his hand over a print out of a Google Map marked in different colour blocks, each demarcating the location of his projects.
Pointing to a tiny blip in one of those coloured maps, he speaks of the spot where his 10x10 foot home in a chawl once existed. Today, he owns the entire neighbourhood, on the threshold of redevelopment.
250 Number of members DICCI had in 2010
1,000 Number of members in 2011; 30 crorepatis among them
Your guide to Dalit crorepatis
According to the DICCI, which has 1,000 entrepreneurs from the Dalit community, there are 30 crorepatis in their group. Some of them are:
Natha Ram, Steelmont Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai
Ashok Khade, Das Offshore Engineering, Mumbai
Kalpana Saroj, Kamani Tubes, Mumbai
Milind Kamble, Fortune Construction
Sanjay Kshirsagar, Sound Concept, Mumbai
Devjibhai Makwana, Suraj Filament, Gujarat
Swwapnil Bhingardeve, Khandoba Prasanna Sakhar, Pune
Malkiat Chand, Janagal Exports, Ludhiana
Dr Sushant Meshram, Multi-speciality hospital in Nagpur
Avinash Jagtap, Everest Spun Pipes, Pune
Sushil Kumar, Simlex Engineers, Noida
Mahavir Singh, Tricon Buildcon, Delhi
Rajendra Gaikwad, GT Pest Control, Pune
Pradeep Nagrare, PK Nagrare Construction, Nagpur
Dilip Bhai, Amba Synthetics, Bhavnagar